We all know the standard features that people look for in a home: location, square footage, number of bedrooms, quality of construction. But if an influential group of scientists is right, we’ll soon be adding another category to the list: emotionally intelligent design.

Although it sounds far-fetched, there is a growing body of research documenting the effects that factors such as room layout, light levels and ceiling height have on brain functions that help regulate our health and our moods. The next hot trend in interior design might be neuroscience.

“It is easy enough to recognise when a room is properly lit and a staircase easy to navigate but so much harder to convert this sense of well-being into a logical understanding of the reasons for it,” says Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness. “It means forcing ourselves to unlearn what we believe we know and to acknowledge the complexity of everyday gestures like switching off a light or turning on a tap.”

For scientists, this means observing and recording our responses to the built environment, then using those findings to improve them. Kitchen designer Johnny Grey works with Alzeimer’s specialist John Zeisel, whose interest in architecture and book, Inquiry by Design, grew out of his clinical work. They have developed a joint theory on what makes for “happy spaces” – light, colour, a degree of messiness and layouts promoting eye contact – and since applied it in residential projects. These include a UK barn conversion, where they installed a circular kitchen counter, and a California house, where the conventional kitchen has been replaced by a more flexible “room for all reasons”.

Zeisel is also a director of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), an organisation launched in 2003 to encourage scientists to get out of the lab and partner with architects and designers. “It’s the future of the field,” he says. “People might ask what neuroscience has to do with designing an ‘emotional’ house but our emotions are managed by our brain,” Zeisel says. “When our brains are happy a certain endorphin gets released, so we need to design homes in order to release that neuro-transmitter.”

Much of ANFA’s work focuses on institutions such as hospitals, schools and correctional facilities but houses are an area of increasing interest. The part of the brain most commonly studied in this connection is the limbic system below the cerebral cortex, including the amygdala, which perceives and expresses emotions; the hippocampus, which is involved in navigation and the formation and retrieval of memories; and the hypothalamus, which receives messages from other parts of the body. Modern scanning devices and imaging techniques, such as electroencephalograms (EEGs), are used to measure reactions to different features of the home.

“When you combine design, psychology and neuroscience you come up with a much richer understanding of the importance of designing houses with our emotional needs in mind,” Grey says.

Take our desire for eye contact with others as an example. “A couple of million kitchens are planned each year and probably only about 5 per cent obey the most basic principles for human communication,” Grey says. In most, the person preparing the food at the sink, stove or counter has to face away from his or her family or guests, decreasing sociability in what should be a social zone. “As a result the brain continues to produce adrenalin and cortisol, the hormones associated with fear and anxiety,” he says. “Whereas if they are facing [into the room] then oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and serotonin, associated with relaxation and enjoyment, are released.”

Grey also rails against minimalist interiors with no clutter since studies have shown that animals, including humans, display increased neural activity in the presence of pictures, objects, distinct colours and textures. In a 2006 paper, Esther Sternberg of the US National Institute of Mental Health and Matthew Wilson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explained that such “landmarks” enhance the “memorability” of an environment and reinforce a positive sense of place. Put another way, a room with many things to catch our attention also captures our affection, increasing well-being.

Zeisel suggests that responses to some features of the home might even be innate. “We are born with genetically developed instincts that make us feel relaxed around flowers, the hearth, food and water,” he says. “It’s simply an emotional need and using those things in the environment will make us feel more comfortable.” On the flip side, places that seem too sterile or too confusing are perceived as dangerous, which can trigger the hypothalamus to release stress hormones. He argues that architects and designers should focus more on these issues rather than banging out eye-catching buildings and objects to win awards from their peers.

Professor Joan Meyers-Levy of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is another academic interested in how our surroundings affect our physical and mental states. Her research shows that when people are in a room with high ceilings, it activates sections of the right brain associated with freedom and abstract thinking. In low-ceilinged rooms, more constrained thinking is brought to the fore. “There’s a preference in terms of real estate for high ceilings and it’s [not only] the sense of power and wealth that conveys but also [the fact that] vertical space could have a beneficial mental influence,” she says.

The implications go beyond the home too. A lofty cathedral might encourage a different religious experience than a modest chapel, for example. In the corporate world, “managers should want noticeably higher ceilings for thinking of bold initiatives, [while] technicians and accountants might want low ceilings”. In hospitals, operating theatres with low ceilings should encourage item-specific processing. And in stores high ceilings might “encourage us to see a use for a product, thereby encouraging us to buy more”.

The importance of light, both natural and artificial, in the home has also been fertile ground for researchers. Ingrid Collins, a psychologist at the London Medical Centre, became interested in Seasonal Affective Disorder, a winter depression that affects about half a million people in the UK each year and is believed to be caused by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus triggered by fewer daylight hours. She thinks many of us are light-deprived during other seasons too because we live in dimly lit houses built at a time when staying warm was a priority and small windows were favoured over large, drafty ones.

“Both at home and in the workplace we are subject to many challenges to our health but the greatest has to be [lack of] light,” Collins says. “We’re creatures of light. It powers our planet and it’s a major source of energy. Some people are far more sensitive to a full spectrum than others because they can’t retain the effect of light for a long period of time. When we deprive ourselves of the full spectrum, we simply won’t have enough energy.”

It might seem obvious that sun-filled rooms are more pleasant than dark ones; windows are an obvious obsession for today’s architects, interior designers, estate agents and property buyers. But Collins’s research suggests that we should try even harder to bring light into our homes. Sternberg and Wilson’s “landmarks” are relevant here too because windows showcasing other buildings or natural features support the orientating system in the hippocampus. By contrast, few views and poor lighting “render edges difficult to discern” and can trigger a stress response.

Furniture and product design is another area in which scientists are trying to transform our residential spaces. Market research groups such as the UK’s Neuroco are now using portable EEG and eye-tracking machines and blood pressure monitors to evaluate responses to textiles, furniture, flooring and fragrances in living environments. The company’s findings suggest that our preference for one television over another, or ecru upholstery over khaki, are all essentially determined by the limbic system. “When we make a decision to buy something the emotional response is critical,” says David Lewis, Neuroco’s neuropsychology research director. “We may then intellectually justify it but if you read the brain activity you would see it is more emotional than logical and generated in the oldest part of the brain.”

Even children seem to show these tendencies. In 1998 Italy’s Reggio Emilia consultancy published “Children, Spaces, Relations”, the findings of its research into young subjects’ reactions to environmental stimuli, or the so-called “third teacher”. Based on observations rather than brain scanning, the report focused on “soft qualities” of light, colour, materials, smell and sound and showed that the furniture and play equipment preferences of the children were quite different to their parents’.

Studio UK, a company based in Newcastle upon Tyne, now imports tables, cabinets and toys from designers working with the Reggio consultancy and this month will co-host an International Conference on Design for Children. “Today there is so much fast design around – we work and we think in a hurry – but perhaps designers should design less and think more,” says manager Matthew Giaretta. “They neglect, for example, a sensitivity to children’s imagination, as when the cardboard box or wrapping paper at Christmas is more engaging than the present contained within.”

He points to Casacubo, a flexible playhouse designed by Harry Koskinen, which satisfies toddlers’ desires both to move and to feel protected. Instead of looking like a miniature version of an adult home, with a front door and a faux garden, for example, it is a fun and colourful cube made of L-shaped pieces that can be assembled to create different patterns of openings.

Moving beyond studies of measurable brain function and physical behaviour, psychologists are also trying to document less tangible responses to living spaces. Clare Cooper Marcus, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, turned her research into a book, House as a Mirror of Self, which focuses on the bonds we have with past and present dwellings. Many of the people she interviewed found their homes deeply uncomfortable for reasons that had nothing to do with usual concerns about security or privacy. For example, “a woman may buy a home, unconsciously emulating the style of a deceased relative or a man may rent a house that is compeltely innappropriate for his needs, only to [realise] that it is a copy of his childhood home still reverberating in his unconscious.”

De Botton has observed this too. “Our behaviour is riddled with eccentricities. Rather than sitting on a soft armchair, we [may decide] we feel more comfortable perched on a hard bench. Bad architecture is as much a failure of psychology as of design, an example of the same tendency which will lead us to marry the wrong people and choose inappropriate jobs, the tendency not to understand what will satisfy us.”

That’s not to say scientists should start telling people which homes to buy or instructing designers on how to do their jobs. When renowned architect Frank Gehry spoke at last year’s Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, he warned against being too prescriptive. “What enables you to find the cure for cancer is not to follow steps A, B, C,” he said. “Some accidental thing in the lab will happen. You follow your intuition, it is an informed intuition and you have the ‘eureka moment’.”

Fred Gage, former ANFA president, agreed. “We see the information that neuroscience will bring to architecture as offering another layer of knowledge to inform intuition, not adding a set of rules or barriers.”

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